While debates continue to rage about the eventual total economic impact of the novel coronavirus, one thing is certain: events and conferences are on the chopping block. Some of the largest tech gatherings in the world (Google I/O, Facebook’s F8 event, Mobile World Congress, and now SXSW) have been canceled or postponed. In the B2B space, SAP not only canceled all in-person events taking place during March 2020 (including major conferences in Orlando and Las Vegas), but also noted a 20% drop in transactions on the company’s Concur travel expense management platform, which indicates a broader trend. As the world surpasses 150,000 confirmed cases and close to 6,000 fatalities (at the time of writing), businesses are increasingly wise to forego large-scale events, with many choosing to host digital conferences and tradeshows to limit the spread of illness. But is it that simple to swap them out for digital events?
A pivot can’t be a step backward
The reality is that when you cancel a major physical event, pivoting to a digital one isn’t as easy as throwing up an interactive website with a few recorded presentations and webinars. Crafting digital events is a skill and strategy all its own, and a basic lift-and-shift isn’t likely to be as effective as a natively digital event that has been planned to take maximum advantage of the medium. For most enterprise marketers, industry events and conferences are one of the biggest items in the budget and a highlight of the annual calendar—a heavy-duty effort to sustain the business and generate net-new accounts. In-person events top the list when it comes to demand generation tactics, with 76% of B2B marketing practitioners attributing top-of-funnel success to live events, while two-thirds (64%) rely on them to successfully convert leads at the middle-to-late stage. Digital equivalents have hefty shoes to fill if they are to make a similar impact on revenue generation.
Here are four tips to bear in mind as you pivot your events from physical to digital:
1. Embrace agility
Digital touchpoints require companies to be nimble. It takes considerable effort to adapt content and strategies that were intended for physical events and turn them into digital-friendly content that can sustain engagement without the x-factor of personal interaction. Webinars and video presentations are informative, but can be a passive experience for the prospect, so embed interactivity throughout the journey when curating a digital experience. For example, IBM is recreating its premier conference Think 2020 as a digital-first event by combining live-streamed content, interactive sessions and certifications, and locally hosted events. Similarly, as you plan your replacement events, you have to consider various methods to ensure that prospective attendees feel the same “worth” in the digital event as they did with the physical ones (and their ticket prices).
2. Measure impact
One drawback of conferences and events is that they involve a lot of potential impact that’s tough to quantify—it may be easy to say based on gut that a meeting went well, but that’s not an exact science, nor is it consistently measurable. Conversely, digital interactions and touchpoints are inherently easier to track, measure, quantify, and down the line, optimize. With careful planning and preparation, you can have an array of dashboards at your disposal to drill down to the smallest discrete data point, and allow you to gauge the success of your event based on any factor you choose to give weight to. A digital medium offers the modern marketer a wealth of data on prospects, and that sheer tonnage of information can be used to tailor messaging to suit specific needs and challenges, and it enables you to tie spend to actual results—something that’s sorely lacking in most event-specific marketing efforts.
3. Leverage technology
Digital events are a prime opportunity to leverage emerging technological advances to serve marketing efforts. Why not mount a virtual tradeshow? The called-off conferences in the wake of COVID-19 have brought several innovative solutions to the fore—one Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup describes itself as “a hybrid of Zoom video, Eventbrite ticketing, Twitch interactivity, and LinkedIn networking,” and uses algorithms to match attendees based on their interests for “virtual cocktail parties.” Even tools as commonplace as videoconferencing (Zoom and Cisco are seeing record usage of late) and social media can become components of a winning digital outreach event. Connect with prospects and attendees on social, and get conversations going virtually. Where the digital presence was once the happy by-product of the offline event, now, it is the event.
4. Accelerate execution
As you plan more digital events, one avenue you should explore is how to accelerate execution of marketing efforts. A side benefit of forgoing large-scale physical events is that you save a great amount of time and effort. Digital initiatives by-and-large require much less work to set up and run, and often result in a higher ROI because of the lower costs involved. It takes far fewer staff to set up a webinar than it does to mount a conference. Plus, digital often scales better than physical. Once you’ve figured out a great webinar event, tested out the interactive aspects, and trialed it in a live setting, it takes only a fraction of the initial effort involved to replicate that same event again, in a different locale, time zone, for a different audience, or whatever parameter you choose to tweak. Taking your marketing efforts from offline to online opens the door to massive scale and speed.
Take this opportunity to invest in transformation
All the measures mentioned above require you to re-examine how your marketing function operates, and that may be a silver lining to this crisis—you’re already compelled to change the way you do business due to external and unforeseen circumstances, so why not take this opportunity to do that more fully, and with an eye to the future? Let’s say you’ve cut your physical events, but digital replacements aren’t quite right for you either. What do you do with the recovered funds?
Consider investing in transforming your marketing model. Marketing as a Service offers forward-thinking CMOs a solution to problems of scalability and constrained resources. The cost-effective economics of an offshore model allow you to stretch your budget dollars further. Augment your marketing engine with a highly-trained workforce that can help you rapidly scale execution efforts, providing the capacity and agility needed to outpace competitors. Here are four reasons to include MaaS in your 2020 marketing budget.